Miss-market paperback

So I was with about 300 writers at this year’s Swanwick Writers’ Summer School for one day this week, meeting them, gassing with them, and running a workshop about blogging with something like 60 people. Name a writing topic, and it came up in the dozens of huge conversations we all go into. But oddly, there was also something that slipped into most of the topics, most of the discussions.

Not true. It wasn’t mentioned at all in any of the conversations I had about how remarkably, I mean remarkably, well organised this event was. I felt privileged to be part of it.

Still, wherever two, three or several hundred writers shalt be gathered, so shalt there be talk about money.

Of course there is, and if people are making a living through writing, it’s far from a surprise when they think about aiming for certain markets, for doing certain things that appeal to readers. Having the hero in the first chapter of a novel, for instance. Having a happy ending, you know the kind of thing.

Against all these reasonable points and to all of these reasonable and talented people, I say bollocks.

Now, it’s easy to say bollocks over here where it’s just you and me talking. I promise you that I said it while I was there, but I grant you that conversation had a lot more context.

So let me summarise the context for you. Sod the mass market, I argued, and screw happy endings.

I am a full-time freelance writer and at this very moment I should be writing a non-fiction piece I’ve been commissioned to do. It comes with quite a specific brief, a word count, and while it’s not been stated for this piece, the fully sensible expectation is that I will again write in this publication’s style. Or near enough, anyway.

Not only have I no problem with this, I’m enjoying writing it. We’re talking now because I’m taking a tea break on the train I’m on. I need a minute or two to get some slices of tea from the buffet. Do you take sugar?

It’s just this. I think you can go native. You can assume that an editor is not only right in the sense that he or she knows what they want, but that what they say goes for everything. I think you can assume that what the market likes is what is right.

I doubt anyone at Swanwick would believe that there are rules to writing, but they know there are things that tend to work and things that tend to fail.

And I also doubt that any writer anywhere would agree with me about ignoring the market when times are really tight. When you don’t know how you’ll get through the end of the month, it’s impossible to be arty. To write something just because you fancy doing it is just impossible, you’ve got to write things that you know will sell.

Except you never know what will.

When things are that pressured, when you are truly under the cosh and you actually do have a strong clue that something will sell – because you’ve been commissioned to do it, because you’ve sold four books in the same vein before – then do what you have to do.

But also do something that you don’t.

Spend at least a little time writing something that doesn’t work, that doesn’t follow some formatted rules and isn’t going to appeal to anyone other than you.

The worst that can happen is that it will be rubbish, but it’ll be your rubbish, maybe you’ll enjoy it, probably it’ll show you what you’re good at in writing, and definitely it will stop you becoming a typist instead of a writer.

And the best that can happen is that it works.

The trouble with rules and formats is that they are a list of what’s worked before and if there’s anyone who should be breaking new ground, it’s writers.

Prat-time writer

I actually have a rule on social media. If I write a tweet or a status update that makes someone sound like an prat, I don’t post it.

And if it makes me sound like one, I do.

I see no reason I shouldn’t do the same here. It’s you. You already know me.

So let me confess upfront that I come out of this like a prat. But only a small one. And the reason to talk to you about this is not me, it’s how startling writing and the business of it can have changed since I started.

On Tuesday evening, I had been due to have a meeting with a friend about a project and then that project changed. We met anyway, just for the fun of the chat, just because why not?

As I got to her place, though, I did feel a little peculiar. Because I wasn’t carrying anything. Usually I have a bag, usually it has an iPad in it, usually I’m working.

"You’re not carrying a bag," she said at the door.

That’s how peculiar and rare and odd and weird it is that I could be walking around without equipment.

"Unless you’re going to tell me it’s all hidden in your pockets," she almost said. It was something like that, this was the meaning, I’m paraphrasing and now I’m discussing that paraphrasing with you in order to put off saying the next bit.

I took a folding keyboard out of my jeans pocket.

And a battery charger. Lightning cable. AirPods headphones.

From my jacket I took out my large-screen iPhone, an old second iPhone I’ve been using for audio recording, and a Lavalier or lapel microphone.

I had them because I’d been using them, but the thing of it is that I had my entire office in my pockets and neither you nor I could notice until I got it all out like this.

I mean, this is more than an office. That equipment can be used – and I am using it – as a film studio. I shot some footage for a different project on my way over to her.

It’s incredible what we can do now, what a writer can do anywhere. We used to be pretty portable because we just carried a HB pencil and hoped someone had paper. But now you can script and produce videos using what’s in your pockets.

Only a week ago, I actually hurt my ribs from all the bags of equipment I had to carry for a day-and-evening job. This Tuesday was relaxation and yet while it was different equipment, while it was for different things, the reason I was carrying it was that I forgot it was all there.

I think that’s marvellous and it makes me want to go work away from my office more.

If only I hadn’t taken it all out of my pocket and placed each part on her coffee table. It looked like I was trying flog stolen goods.

AG is gold, not silver

Last week I wanted you to hold my hand through obsessing over a plot point in a sitcom from about 12 years ago. This week, I don’t. Please don’t help me with this one, please don’t answer the key question at the heart of something I’ve now been trying to find out for 25 years.

Actually, it’s 25 years tomorrow.

And what I don’t want to know, but I do, and I don’t, but I do, is about Quincy, M.E. Specifically, what happened at the end of season 2, episode 10, An Unfriendly Radiance, by Rudolph Borchert.

I can tell you, because I have back issues of Radio Times, that this aired on BBC1 at 11:05 on Wednesday 4 August, 1994, and that I was watching it while dressed in the best suit I have ever owned.

Tell me you don’t get dressed up for Quincy and then leave before the end.

Looking at that Radio Times listing, I’m struck by how The Rockford Files was on later (BBC1, 14:15-15:05, Find Me If You Can, season 1, episode 9, teleplay by Juanita Bartlett, story by Roy Huggins using his pen name of John Thomas James.)

The Rockford Files is much better than Quincy, but 14:15 on Wednesday 4 August, 1994, would be too late.

I’d be married by then.

I didn’t mention that the best suit I’ve ever owned had a flower in it. Or that I was sitting really carefully and resisting tea because I was being practical about not risking any spills, and because I was being really shaky.

No question, I’d have watched whatever was on, it just happened to be Quincy, and it just happened that Quincy was a moment of stillness on my wedding day. It was also Angela Gallagher’s wedding day, but I don’t think she got to have any stillness, and if she watched Quincy that morning, she’s never admitted it.

Also no question, even as ready as I was, even though it was impossible to leave until the car came, impossible as it was to think about anything else, I did get into that Quincy episode. And then I did get out of it again, no more than 25 minutes in.

So for all these years, there has been a bit of me that really wants to know if Quincy saved the day, and there’s more of me that likes not knowing.

Except.

I wanted to credit the writer, so I looked up the episode online –– and I’ve found the episode. It shouldn’t be there, it’s been illegally uploaded to YouTube, but it’s there.

It’s still not going to be the video I’m likely to watch this weekend.

And if I’m not kidding about how I think of this episode often, it’s really because I think of that moment and I think a lot of that day twenty five years ago. So long ago, so far away, and yet Angela Gallagher is still with me.

She might not be after she sees this image. It’s irresistible, it’s a Before and After image from the day. The alternative is that I show you how we looked then and now, but that won’t happen because while Angela would look wonderful in both, I wouldn’t in either. Even with that suit.

The Quincy title sequence on left and mine and Angela's wedding on right

Before and After

Wait and Wait for It

I want us to fix a problem I missed back in 2007. I was going to say that it’s a drama problem, and I still think it is, but it’s to do with an episode of the comedy How I Met Your Mother, a series I think should be legen –

hang on, no, let me get specific. I’m talking about season 3, episode 1, Wait for It, by series creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, which first aired on 24 September 2007, and which I just watched again – after seeing the preceding 44 episodes over the past few weeks.

I bought the whole series on iTunes and then discovered that it’s also on Netflix. Anyway.

When you binge-watch something, it changes. I think overall comedies, at least the best ones, tend to blur into dramas because after a few episodes back to back, you’re not as receptive to surprise as you are when watching it weekly. How I Met Your Mother, I think, certainly works as drama, and actually after a few years into its run, that was chiefly why I continued watching.

It would still always be sporadically funny, but I was just into the characters. And watching the first few seasons again now, it is a joy to find how continually very funny it originally was.

HIMYM features some really smart writing: there are episodes where I’m totally into the story and yet the writer in me pops up to applaud something particularly well done.

I should say that it never occurred to me that the show would ever actually reveal the mother of the title. I simply unconsciously thought that it was a great title, a smart framing device for the stories with a father narrating tales to his bored kids, and not at all that it was a deliberate plan they hoped to play out over nine years.

I should’ve realised, not only because when they finally did the reveal at the end of the eighth season, they did it superbly. I should also have realised because How I Met Your Mother is one of those extraordinarily rare series, a successful romantic comedy.

And, grief, it was fantastic on romance.

There was a particular recurring motif that they played for every ounce of romance, and that was a yellow umbrella. When you heard that mentioned by a character or you just glimpsed it in the back of a scene, it was electric.

And the problem is that I now think it was set up very poorly.

Maybe I didn’t follow every episode on its first run, certainly there were things I just assumed I’d missed, but now I’ve been watching the whole run again in rapid sequence, I’ve seen one key point about the yellow umbrella that I failed to spot before.

“Kids,” begins the narrator at the start of Wait for It. “There’s more than one story of how I met your mother. You know the short version, the thing with your mom’s yellow umbrella.”

WE DO NOT.

Maybe as written that line could be meant to say that the children have previously been told about the umbrella, maybe it’s meant to be that since they are the kids of this mother and father, they know the story as family lore.

But it sounds, it plays, as if we viewers have heard about this and we haven’t. This is the first mention of something crucial to the run of the series and, trust me, it ain’t mentioned once before this 45th episode.

Now, it’s easy to criticise an episode 12 years after it was made, especially a US TV sitcom episode where they were making 20 episodes one after the other, bang, bang, bang.

And clearly there were plans for this umbrella, plans that became scenes and whole episodes that I think are both marvellous and far better than I could ever write.

But.

Given that I’ve had either a dozen years or about a week, depending on how you count, I do have a way they could’ve launched the whole yellow umbrella story without clunking into it like this.

Within this one episode, the yellow umbrella makes two appearances. Once is during that wobbly start as the kids are reminded that they know about it. The other, gorgeously effective, catch-in-your-throat great, is the penultimate scene, really the last before an unrelated tag. The narrator is talking about everything is leading inexorably to how he met the mother, and how close that was.

And during those words, we see someone holding the yellow umbrella as she walks by McLaren’s Bar, the show’s regular pub setting.

It is that proximity that gives the episode a last little spark before the end titles. I just think now that it doesn’t need the opening reference. It’s tempting to set up something you’re going to pay off, it’s even automatic, but in this case, less is more.

All week I’ve been thinking that this is a dialogue problem. That rather than the narrator telling us about the yellow umbrella at the start, he could tell us at the end. Tell us about it over that last shot of one yellow umbrella in the crowd.

But talking to you about it, replaying the episode in my head, I think I’m wrong.

It’s a yellow umbrella. It stands out. And just as you always know who is the important character in a story without being actually told, so this time you would get that the yellow umbrella was important.

I offer that you would inescapably know that it was the mother who was carrying it.

Part of the satisfaction of writing, to me anyway, is in taking an audience to a certain point. Knowing where you’re going to take them, and then getting them there. How I Met Your Mother was first class at bringing you to a point –– and then throwing you with the smallest extra instant.

This was one of those. I just think, some 4,322 days after it aired, that this one could’ve punched even better.

What do you mean, I’m currently trying to write a romance and find it damn hard? There’s a word for anyone who can pull that off and it’s the same word for writers who can create a catchphrase I’m still quoting a dozen years later.

It’s dary. Legendary.

And do the other things

You can obsess over a few words. And you can think about them for decades. No, I mean, you can. Go ahead. It’s not writer insanity, it isn’t.

In this case, the words I think about and have thought about since I was old enough to say "eh?" are in that moon speech of John F Kennedy’s.

The speech, written by Ted Sorensen, is surely the most remembered political speech of Kennedy’s time, maybe of anyone’s time. If you’ve heard others, you haven’t heard them as often as you have this one.

It was a speech born of much the same political crap we still go through, but it’s a speech that has a decent chance of being remembered for a thousand years. We’ve fumbled a bit, but still there was a time before we had reached the moon and there’s now, when we have.

For at least seven million years, we’ve looked up at the moon. And now in our lifetime, we’ve got there. It makes me gasp.

I don’t care that Kennedy’s motivation was base politics. I care a bit that when the US President phoned the astronauts on the moon, the President was Nixon.

The thing I care about far too much is a line in that speech. While we’re enjoying all this anniversary coverage of the moon landing, listen out for how many times you hear this speech – and how often it is carefully edited.

Of course we only see and hear a tiny fragment of what was in reality a full half an hour long speech. But I mean even the key line is often edited, often obscured.

It’s the line that goes: "We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard."

That’s not even the whole sentence, but as well as no newsroom bothering to go beyond that point, they also twitch over "and do the other things".

They twitch over that and they distract us with a cutaway to b-roll footage and I think about it too much because it’s rubbish.

You’ve no idea now what these other things were, but nobody really did then, either. Sorenson fudged the best sentence in political history.

The whole speech is rubbish. It careers from the inspirational that we remember to the defensive that we don’t. It has over the top rhetoric about how "we set sail on this new sea". And it has moments of admin tedium when it says going to the moon will help us organise ourselves and, I may be exaggerating here, presumably invent Post-It notes.

You can forget all of the contemporary politics because everyone skips everything except the moon line. You can ignore how the speech was aimed at persuading the recalcitrant American public that going to the moon was a good thing, because it worked and they went.

The ‘we choose to go to the moon’ speech is dreadful, but that line isn’t. That line soars.

Except for the clang about ‘and do the other things’ right in the middle of it. Maybe that line as a whole is the most inspirational by a US President, but it clangs in the middle.

Sorensen blew it there. He couldn’t have imagined how the line would be repeated, how it would resonate, but still he blew it.

Don’t listen to the whole speech, either, because it’s full of blown moments. And Kennedy didn’t help. He hand-wrote some gags into it to do with the weather and sports.

According to Wikipedia, it’s his gags that are most remembered by sports fans. This is the speech that got the human race to the moon and what some people remember from it is a fucking football match.

At least Kennedy didn’t wear a cap with Make The Moon Great Again.

Process stories

The phrase 'process stories' isn't exactly common, so I should make sure that you and I both agree that it refers to stories, usually journalism, which follow something's process. How it happened. It's not, for example, meant to mean something where you are supposed to digest, consider, process the story.

Except that's what I want us to do today. And I want us to do it twice.

The first is a quick one, it's something that you've seen a lot, but recently there was that thing about someone in the British cabinet leaking information concerning the government's decisions over whether to use Huawei or – no, stop. It doesn't matter what the decision was.

It does, of course, but I'm concerned with the furore over the leak.

Nobody cared about the subject of the leak, or at least nobody talked about it. Everyone talked about how scandalous it was that a Cabinet minister would leak something.

The story was about the process, about who leaked it and how it happened. And that's the thing with a process story, it somehow manages to become the issue. It completely hides the actual issue over Huawei or whatever it is this time, and instead we're directed to be shocked at there having been a leak.

That's the power of storytelling, and it's not a nice power.

Then we've also just had this business of Sir Kim Darroch. I'd not heard of him before, neither you nor I will hear of him again, but for a brief time, the story was that this UK ambassador had been unprofessional and rude to America.

Darroch, to give him some credit here, moved the story on and caused more trouble than you'd have imagined he could, by precisely timing his resignation. It must be nice to be able to afford to resign your job, but whoever in the hell he is, he does know his politics.

Up to then, though, the process story was calling him unprofessional, he was effectively threatened on television by the man likely to be our next prime minister.

The process story was telling us that he'd written a memo about the US government that wasn't flattering. He called them inept, he called them all sorts of things.

But this means that the memo was leaked. This time, somehow, the process story was not about how there could've ever have been a leak and how scandalously shocking that this extremely commonplace thing apparently is. This time, the process story was about how an ambassador could possibly write such a memo.

That's precision spin, there. Because if the journalism concerned had actually been about the process, the question would've been about how someone could do this –– and we know the answer. It's his job.

Ambassadors represent their country overseas, and they report back to their country what they find. If there's a job description for ambassador, I don't even know what else it would contain.

Yet instead of just telling us this for anyone who doesn't already find it bleedin' obvious, though, the story asked the question about how he could it. It asked the question and it asked the question, and it went over and over the same ground, and it gave a rotating panel of politicians opportunities to look great decrying this man.

They literally called him unprofessional for doing his job, for literally being professional.

And we're expected to swallow it.

We've come to a stage in politics where politicians believe that if they tell us a story, we'll buy it, whatever it is.

Right now in the UK we're having a parade of televised debates about who will be the next prime minister and it's all, every second of it, offensive bollocks. We don't get a say, not in the slightest. We can make up our minds over who we don't want, but it does not matter what we think, not in the slightest.

But still we're getting these debates and we're being told this story that the topic is important – which it is – so the process is important. Which it isn't.

These debates are stylised television entertainment, they are Britain's Got Talent without any sign whatsoever of talent.

We have all these problems and instead of even the simplest examination – why would this ambassador do this thing? because it's his job, the end – we're just getting process stories.

I don't understand how process stories start, I don't understand how they fasten on to particular elements of a story and not others. But I do understand that they are always meant to occupy us with things that do not matter, for fear of us being occupied with things that do.

You're not fooled by this and I would hope that I'm not either, but we're probably wrong. This stuff works or it wouldn't keep happening. We need to stop it working.

I don't know how we'd do it, but the process of stopping this insulting nonsense is a story I'd like to read.

Bragadoon

I have a shelf, actually a couple of shelves, where I keep items I’ve worked on. A friend, Emma Boniwell, mentioned that she has one too – we both just worked on the same magazine – but she has a name for this type of shelf.

And for the life of me I can neither remember quite what it is, or ask her. The former is because I’m rubbish, and the latter is because I’ve already asked her to remind me and I forgot again.

I think she calls hers a boasting shelf or maybe a bragging one. There’s definitely a very high degree of self-deprecation and even self-criticism in her term for it, but that’s one place where she’s wrong. There is something special about making things. There is something both special and reassuring about a growing number of things you’ve made.

It’s not bragging, it’s not as if you show anyone else, but it is a bit of pride and that’s damn right.

And I know this, I believe this, because of my own shelf.

When something is going badly and you alternate between wishing you’d never started it and being certain you’ll never finish anything, I think it’s reassuring to see a shelf full of what you’ve done before.

Also daunting. Right this second, I realise that it’s also daunting. Thanks very much.

Perhaps that’s why, completely unconsciously, I slowly moved my own bragging shelf to behind my Mac.

So the books and whatever are within reach for the odd time I need to refer to them, but otherwise they’re out of sight.

Or they were until this week when my Mac died.

It’s currently being repaired, but for several days now I’ve been having to work on my iPad and my iPhone, and they’re not blocking my view of anything.

My bragging shelf has reappeared. And now I’m torn over what to do when my Mac returns. There is a bit of me, a huge bit, that likes seeing a dozen books, countless magazine and newspaper issues, DVDs and Doctor Who CDs.

I like that and I am proud of them, yes. Most of them.

But there is also a bit of me that likes the notion of them always being there yet only appearing from time to time.

It shouldn't be a thing

There are so many things that shouldn't be a thing and usually it's a very bad thing that these things are things, or something. Just last week, for instance, I wrote to you to praise how ITV comedy head Saskia Schuster banned all-male writing teams and of course the idea that she or anyone should even have to think to do that, is a bad thing.

I still and entirely believe that given the situation, given how I as a viewer am being denied all the voices in the land, that it's a good thing she did this.

Something's happened, though. Since I wrote that to you, I've now seen Schuster speak. She was the guest speaker at this year's Writers' Guild AGM on Monday and she was interviewed by the outgoing –– in every great sense –– Chair, Gail Renard.

And Schuster said she hated how everybody called what she's done, a ban.

I squirmed a little in my seat and thought a lot about my shoelaces.

Other than a difference over that word, though, what she said about her decision was everything I liked about it. This was also only one part of a wide-ranging interview and I came away so impressed that I wished I wrote comedy.

Maybe I do. People do seem to laugh at my writing whether I want them to or not. I'll think about it.

Or I will when I'm done thinking about this other thing. This thing that is in all ways a good thing, not just something good done to address something bad.

Well, there is bad in it. At that AGM, Gail stood down as Chair and Olivia Hetreed stepped down as President. These two are both the sort of person that if you got them working with or for you, you would never let them go. But the Guild is a union, it has legal rules, and by chance both of them reached the end of their terms on Monday.

I'm not kidding here: them being required to step down is nothing short of a blow.

But Gail has been replaced by Lisa Holdsworth and it is nothing short of miraculous that we've got her. This is the right person at the right time.

The Guild has two deputy chairs and up to Monday, I shared that title with Lisa. I already knew her from her writing, I'd already worked with her at events, I was frankly daunted to be paired with her. I know there's nobody better to be Chair – and I suspect there's nobody nicer. She's not reading this, is she? You won't tell her, will you?

I was re-elected as Deputy Chair for another year and in Lisa's place, Tim Stimpson from The Archers was also elected to this post.

And finally, I've got to the thing.

Lisa Holdsworth, Chair of the Writers' Guild, is based in Leeds. Tim and I are both based in Birmingham.

The Writers' Guild has always, from the very start sixty years ago, been a national union. But right now, three of its officers are based outside London and that is a very good thing.

I realise as I write this that I have no idea where our new President, Sandi Toksvig lives. And that's peculiar, because she and I have a history. Oh, yes. Sandi and I, we've shared some laughs, we've shared some times, we must go back at least, oh, forty seconds.

I could ask her at the next Writers' Guild meeting, I suppose, but somehow I'm hesitant. "Hello, Sandi, really glad you're the new President, now, exactly where do you live?"

You're having a laugh

This week ITV head of comedy Saskia Schuster announced that she would no longer commission comedy shows that have only men on their writing team. She announced this and what she said was reported only nearly accurately. If you look at the inevitable criticisms she's had since saying this, you tend to find that they are really criticisms of what people said she said.

The truth is that if you are the new Galton and Simpson, don't worry about it. You're not going to have to become Galton and Simpson and Somebody Else.

Whereas, if you're producing a comedy that has a team of writers and every single one of them is male, well, what in the world are you thinking anyway? Comedy can be safe and predictable if you want, but it can also be challenging and difficult and brilliant. You're not going to get a lot of challenging different views out of a group of writers who are all male or all from one area, all of one age, all of one anything.

It is wrong that a broadcaster should impose any requirement beyond whether the script is good or not, but it's a wrong I agree with because it's needed. I am thinking of women writers, I am thinking of writers, but I'm also being selfish as a viewer.

We aren't getting enough women's voices in comedy, actually I don't think we're getting enough different voices of any kind, and it's absolutely no coincidence whatsoever that comedy is feeling stale. That one quietly sublime sitcom like Mum can stand out like a trumpet because so much else is just flat and samey.

If this is what it takes to get better comedy, good on ITV's Schuster for doing it.

Years and years ago, I used to go to television press events and while I've not said it before, I'll admit now that I didn't like the ITV ones. There were plenty of BBC people I didn't like, plenty of ITV ones I did and certainly the shows were as good at each event, but the ITV sessions themselves felt uncomfortable to me. I was a bit of an outsider, just popping in to the odd event when most of the attendees were long-time regulars, but still, it felt like a boys' club and I was excluded.

I've not worked in a writing team where we were all in the same room together or all on precisely the same project, but I was minded of this experience when Schuster described why she was doing this. “Too often the writing room is not sensitively run,” she said at the Diverse Festival. “It can be aggressive and slightly bullying.”

Mind you, I've also been in computer press events where it felt like port and cigars would be passed around any minute. And that the only reason the women wouldn't be expected to go to another room was that there were no women present. I'd say that you can't believe the smugness of technology men who know they're right, but I suspect you can.

Anyway. We've had decades where shows have not included women and if it takes ITV to say oi, cop on to yourself, well done Schuster.

Saskia Schuster is speaking at the Writers' Guild AGM on Monday, where I'm standing as deputy chair. Wait. There's something funny about standing as a chair. I'll think about that. But as well as looking forward to hearing her, I also think it's right that she's there. I'd think that anyway because of her job, but this announcement and her forming the Comedy 50:50 initiative last year makes it more so.

The Writers' Guild is behind the campaign Equality Writes and over the last year, we've seen many moves like Schuster's which have the same aims. We've still a long way to go, but it's going in the right direction.

If you think this is a good time to be a woman writer, I hope you're right. If you think this is a good time for better comedy, I'm with you all the way.

Licence to do what you like

There’s a local BBC news programme where I am certain the reporters are bored. You know, and they know, about how news should answer the questions How, What, Where, When and Why. On this show, though, they play a game and nearly always leave one of those out.

They ruined the fun recently, mind, by ending a three-minute package with a request for viewers to email in if they knew who the story was about. They had two facts to fill three minutes and they didn’t know one of them, but they admitted it. Ruined the game.

Sometimes it’s a bit more serious. I remember emailing or tweeting or something, when a reporter on that same show did a piece and failed to ask the most completely essential and obvious question. It was a yes or no question and I was terribly interested because depending on the answer, this story was now either about fraud or negligence.

I never found out which because I got a deeply snotty reply telling me that people aren’t interested.

But then there is the bigger and less funny case of BBC Breakfast. After the Remain march in London where organisers say a million people turned up, the BBC’s national news show deliberately got it wrong. You can dispute that a million were there and actually, so you should. Question everything. But BBC Breakfast’s Louise Minchin chose to say that there were tens of thousands instead.

That’s a national BBC journalist choosing to make a factual error.

I’ve worked for BBC News and I’ve been on Breakfast yet the result is that when she or anyone else on that show tells me the time is ten past eight, I look at my watch to check.

The reason I bring this up with you today, though, is that there is an online campaign to protest against the BBC by not watching it on some certain day. And the protest has nothing to do with anything the BBC has done, it’s about the over-75s not getting a free TV licence – because of the government.

You know that if you get free medication for any reason, it’s not because your pharmacist is in a good mood. It’s because the cost is paid by government funds. That was the case with the licence fee. Successive governments wanted to give the elderly certain benefits, so they did. It’s hard to remember a time when any government did anything that benefitted anybody outside in the Cabinet, but apparently it happened.

I don’t remember governments making a fuss about this, about scoring votes by doing it, so perhaps it’s only fair that the current one isn’t mentioning that it’s stopped doing it.

Except it’s fantastic, dramatically. One group takes away money from an organisation and manages to get everyone protesting against the organisation.

I’ve been thinking that if this weren’t governments and corporations, if it were individual characters, that you could make it up, but you wouldn’t. I was thinking that it would be too unbelievable, that doing something to another person, getting that person blamed for it, and then later using all of this to do some more damage to this poor sod, would feel contrived.

But it’s schoolyard stuff, this is the bully whistling innocence while the timid victim is too afraid to tell anyone. Unfortunately, it’s also BBC News not reporting the story.